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The Japanese occupation of Singapore in World War II occurred between 1942 and 1945 after the fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942. Military forces of the Empire of Japan occupied Singapore after defeating the combined Australian, British, Indian and Malayan garrison in the Battle of Singapore. The occupation was to become a major turning point in the history of several nations, including that of Japan, Britain and the then-colonial state of Singapore. Singapore was renamed to Syonan-to (昭南島 Shōnan-tō), which means "Light of the South".[1][2] Singapore was officially returned to British colonial rule on 12 September 1945, following the formal signing of the surrender instrument at the Municipal Building.

Events leading to the occupation

The Japanese took all of Malaya during the Malayan Campaign in little more than two months. The garrison defending Singapore surrendered on 15 February 1942, only a week after the invasion of Singapore commenced. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the fall of Singapore "the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history".[3]

Life during the occupation

Reign of terror

The Kempeitai (Japanese military secret police) committed numerous atrocities against the common people. They introduced the system of "Sook Ching", which means "purge through purification" (in Chinese), to get rid of those deemed as anti-Japanese. The Sook Ching Massacre claimed the lives of between 25,000 and 50,000 ethnic Chinese in Singapore and Malaya. These men were rounded up and taken to deserted spots around the island and killed systematically. Besides, the Kempeitai established a network of informers around the island to help them identify those who were anti-Japanese. These informers were well-paid by the Kempeitai and had no fear of being arrested. Japanese soldiers patrolled the streets and commoners had to bow to them when they passed by. Those who failed to do so would be slapped or beaten and some people would be taken away.

Other Changes in Syonan-to

To remove Western influence, the Japanese set up schools to teach the people the Japanese language. Textbooks were printed in Japanese. Every morning, the children had to stand facing the direction of Japan and sing the Japanese national anthem.

In the cinemas, only Japanese movies and propaganda films were shown. These films showed the virtues of the Japanese and made fun of the British. Going to the cinemas had its dangers too since the Japanese might suddenly appear and take away young men to work on the Death Railway. Sometimes, the Japanese would plant themselves in the cinemas and would listen secretly to conversations, hoping to overhear anti-Japanese remarks.

The local Chinese and English newspapers had very little local news. Most of what was reported was the Japanese version of the war and pro-Japanese speeches. Radio stations were controlled by the Japanese and radio owners could listen only to local broadcasts. Tuning in to foreign broadcasting stations was done at great risk. Those caught doing so were severely punished or even killed.

Scarce basic necessities

"Banana money" was issued during the war.

Resources were scarce during the occupation. The prices of basic necessities increased drastically due to hyperinflation. For example, the price of rice increased from $5 per 100 catties (about 60 kg or 130 lb) to $5000. The Japanese issued ration cards to limit the amount of resources received by the civilian population. Adults could purchase 4.8 kg (11 lb) of rice per month and 2.4 kg (5.3 lb) for children. The amount of rice for adults was reduced by 25% as the war progressed.[4]

The Japanese issued banana money as their main currency since Straits currency became rare. The Japanese instituted elements of a command economy in which there were restrictions on the demand and supply of resources, thus creating a popular black market. The "banana currency" started to suffer from high inflation and dropped drastically in value because the authorities would simply print more whenever they needed more money; consequently the black market often used Straits currency.

Food quality and availability decreased greatly. Sweet potatoes and yam became the staple food of most diets of Singaporeans because they were considerably cheaper than rice and could also be grown in gardens. They were then turned into a variety of dishes, as both dessert and all three meals of the day. The nutrients helped stave off starvation, and new ways of consuming tapioca with other produce were regularly invented in order to stave off the monotony. Both the British and Japanese authorities encouraged the population to grow their own food if they had even the smallest amount of land, the encouragement and produce were similar to what occurred with victory gardens in the Western nations during World War II.[5] Ipomoea aquatica, which grew relatively easy and flourished relatively well near the water, became a popular crop, as did other vegetables.[citation needed]

Allied attacks

Ivan Lyon (center) celebrating with two other members of Z Force following the success of Operation "Jaywick".

Singapore was the target of various operations masterminded by Allied forces to disrupt Japanese military activities. On 26 September 1943, an Allied commando unit known as Z Force led by Major Ivan Lyon infiltrated Singapore Harbour and sank or damaged seven Japanese ships comprising over 39,000 long tons (40,000 metric tons). Lyon led another operation, codenamed Rimau, with the same objective almost a year later and sank three ships. Lyon and 13 of his men were killed after the Japanese discovered them. The other 10 who participated in the operation were charged with espionage in a kangaroo court and subsequently executed.

Lim Bo Seng of Force 136 led another operation, code named Gustavus, to establish an espionage network in Malaya and Singapore and gather intelligence about Japanese forces for the Allies. However, Operation Gustavus failed and Lim was captured along with his men. Lim died in prison due to ill-treatment. Force 136 was eventually disbanded after the war.

In August 1945, two midget submarines of the Royal Navy took part in Operation Struggle, a plan to infiltrate Singapore Harbour and sabotage the Japanese cruisers Takao and Myōkō using limpet mines. They inflicted heavy damage on Takao, earning Lieutenant Ian Edward Fraser the Victoria Cross. From November 1944 to May 1945, Singapore was subjected to bombing raids by British and American long-range bomber units.

Syonan Jinjya

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The Syonan (Shonan) Shinto Shrine, or Syonan Jinja, was built by British prisoners-of-war and the Japanese Army off Adam Road inside the MacRitchie Reservoir area. It was officially unveiled on 10 September 1942. However, the Shrine was demolished immediately after the Japanese surrender with the return of the British forces in 1945. Only remnants of a font and foundation remain. In September 2002, the National Heritage Board marked the shrine's location as a historic site.

After the fall of Singapore, General Yamashita in the subsequent months sought to build a memorial for the Japanese troops who had died during the Malayan campaign. British prisoners-of-war interned in the Changi Gaol and troops of the Japanese Army worked together to construct the Shinto Shrine, Syonan Jinja, at MacRitchie Reservoir which stood near the centre of the heat of battle for Singapore. Work on the construction of the shrine had begun as early as April 1942, at the west end of the forest that surrounded MacRitchie Reservoir. The site of the Shrine necessitated the felling of a remarkable patch of original, primeval forest, a great loss to the botanical world.

Halfway through the construction, a Colonel in the Japanese Army suggested a parallel shrine be built for the Allies. With Yamashita's concession, Australian troops were recruited to build the Allied Cross which stood behind the Shinto Shrine. On 10 September, both monuments were unveiled. The Japanese had also built another shrine, the Syonan Chureito off Jalan Sesuai at Bukit Batok.

Immediately after the Japanese Surrender and the return of the British forces in 1945, the Shinto Shrine, the Bukit Batok War Memorial (Syonan Chureito) and the British War Memorial behind it, both located at Upper Bukit Timah Road were demolished by the British forces. The remains of the Japanese were moved to the Japanese cemetery.

Plans to rebuild the memorials to remember both the Japanese and Allied fallen were discussed in the 1990s but were shelved in 1991 because of sensitivities toward those who had suffered under the Japanese. Today, a transmitting tower stands at the site of the original monuments. On 9 July 1995, a plaque was unveiled by MP Ong Chit Chung at the Bukit Batok Nature Park as a memorial instead.

The shrine's design was based on the famed Yasukuni Shrine in Japan. The Yasukuni Shrine dates back to 1869 and has been the resting place for more than 2.466 million Japanese soldiers who died for their country, serving as a national symbol to remember those who died in both World Wars. Reflecting its design, the Shinto shrine was a 12 m (39 ft) tall cylindrical wooden pylon, its peak tipped with a brass cone. At the base of the pylon, in a small shed-like shrine were the remains of the fallen Japanese. In front of the monument was a font which visitors would take a sip from using a long-handled ladle. Shinto meaning "the way of the gods" is the native faith of the Japanese and is primarily pantheistic. It is necessary to cleanse oneself before approaching a Shinto Shrine for prayers, thus the provision of the font. A Japanese bridge was built across an arm of the reservoir to bring visitors to the secluded Shrine hidden behind the trees. The Shinto followers believe that "divine spirits" or kami reside in nature and thus the location of the Syonan Shinto Shrine in the midst of the forest.

End of the occupation

The Japanese delegation leaves the Municipal Building after the surrender ceremony on 12 September 1945.

A cheering crowd welcome the return of British forces on 5 September 1945.

On 6 and 9 August 1945, U.S. B-29 bombers called Enola Gay and Bockscar dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On 8 August 1945, Soviet Union declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki along with the entry of Soviet Union into the war ended the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia. By then, the Japanese allowed the Allies to send in forces and food supplies. Prisoners-of-war were checked by medical officers and arrangements were made to send them home.

On 15 August, Japan announced its surrender. The formal signing of the surrender instrument was held at City Hall, Singapore, then known as "Municipal Hall", on 12 September. This was followed by a celebration at the Padang, which included a victory parade. Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia Command, came to Singapore to receive the formal surrender of the Japanese forces in the region from General Seishirō Itagaki on behalf of General Hisaichi Terauchi. A British military administration utilizing surrendered Japanese troops as security forces was formed to govern the island until March 1946.

After the Japanese surrendered, there was a state of anomie in Singapore, as the British had not yet arrived to take control. The Japanese occupiers had a considerably weakened hold over the populace. There were widespread incidents of looting and revenge-killing. Much of the infrastructure had been wrecked, including the harbour facilities and electricity, water supply, and telephone services. It took four or five years for the economy to return to pre-war levels. When British troops finally arrived they were met with cheering and fanfare.

Banana money became worthless after the occupation ended. Many individuals who had acquired their wealth through banana currency were rendered penniless overnight.

Popular culture

The Japanese occupation of Singapore has been depicted in media and popular culture, including films and television series.


  • (Japanese) Minami Jujisei (The Southern Cross, also known as The Highest Honour and Heroes of the Krait) (1982), a Japanese-Australian co-production.[6][7]

Television series

  • (English) Early episodes of Tenko, a BBC/ABC production.
  • (English) The Heroes (1988), an Australian-British co-production.
  • (English) Heroes II: The Return (1991), an Australian miniseries.
  • (Chinese) The Last Rhythm (1996), produced by the Television Corporation of Singapore (TCS).
  • (Chinese) The Price of Peace (1997), produced by the TCS.
  • (English) A War Diary (2001), produced by MediaCorp.
  • (Chinese) In Pursuit of Peace (2001), produced by MediaCorp.
  • (English) Changi (2001), produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

List of monuments and historical sites

See also


External links

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